Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Microsoft Surface RT - Initial Thoughts

What is the Microsoft Surface RT, and is it you? Microsoft has released its surface tablet to the world and they have bombarded the TV world with advertisements, but they don't tell you much about it. Carl Brooks of IamthereforeiPad.com shares his thoughts on the Microsoft Surface RT.

Now that we have seen Microsoft's song and dance show, let's get down to what this device can and cannot do. First of all the Microsoft surface is not an iPad. It doesn't claim to be an iPad; actually Microsoft doesn't claim much about what it can do. On Microsoft's site there is very little information given as to what this device can do. I did find this little bit of information that Microsoft provides about what is installed on the device, "Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 RT Preview1, (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, OneNote); Windows Mail and Messaging; SkyDrive; Internet Explorer 10; Bing; Xbox Music, Video, and Games."

So based on the software that Microsoft provides with the Surface RT, we know that you can manage your MS Office files, manager your email, send messages, store and retrieve your data from their SkyDrive cloud storage service, surf the web, listen to music, watch video and play games.

Will get into more of what it can do or cannot do later, Since Microsoft seems to focus their commercials and their website data primarily on the design of the Surface RT, I'll start with the design too.

Microsoft described the Surface RT as, "a feat of engineering and a work of art. One touch and you’ll recognize the thoughtful design and precision craftsmanship that make Surface a joy to behold. The unique VaporMg casing delivers a high-quality fit and finish that’s ultra-light and durable."

The build quality is indeed done very well and It feels very nice in the hands. The kickstand is a very nice feature that just makes sense for a tablet. It works as advertised. I like it, but I didn't think it had the same quality sound of closing the door on a well engineered car as it was described on stage during the Surface RT announcement event.

The kickstand is well thought out and solid. When not in use, the kickstand becomes invisible. There is a small slot on the left side of the screen that allows a fingernail to open the kick stand. I kept trying to do it from the right side. I wondered why they didn't just add a slot on both sides so the kickstand could be opened from either side.

The second thing Microsoft spent their advertising budget on was to demonstrate how easily the external keyboard cover connects to the Surface RT via the integrated magnet(s). The single repeated Surface RT commercial shows multiple people clicking the two items together with a satisfying "Click".

The keyboard cover is super thin and light. The keys have no tactile feel nor any sound from the keys. They are not actual keys, but are imprints or drawings of keys. They work surprising well. I am not a touch typist, I mostly look at my keys as I type (even though I can type without looking - it's a bad habit). For me, this keyboard cover would be fine and is much better than typing on a glass screen. And it is light enough to carried all the time with the device.

The keyboard does not use Bluetooth, as most external keyboards do, but rather it has a physical connector that attaches when the two device connect with the magnetic pull. This is significant because the keyboard does not have to contain a battery like the Bluetooth keyboard do. That is why it can be so thin and light. They also

The Surface RT's dimensions are 10.81 x 6.77 x 0.37in with a 10.6" (diagonal) ClearType HD Display (1366x768 pixels). The iPad is 9.50 x 7.31 x 0.37in with a 9.7" (diagonal) LED-backlit Multi-Touch display with IPS technology (2048x1536 pixels). So while the two devices are in landscape orientation, the Surface RT is shorter from top to bottom, but longer from left to right. While sitting on a flat surface or in the hand, this orientation does not present any problem. The longer side presents some formatting problems when in the portrait orientation.

The Surface weights 1.5 lbs while the iPad (Wifi only) 1.44 lbs. So the Surface RT weights more without the cover. Keeping the keyboard attached, the device would cause hand fatigue over time as the full iPad does.

The Surface RT has buttons for power, volume up and down and a single home button. It has a 3.5 headphones jack, two speakers and two microphones (compared to the iPad mono speaker and single microphone). The real hardware differentiators for the Surface RT are the USB port and the microSDXC card slot. You can connect a flash drive, external hard drive, keyboard, mouse, wireless headphone, camera and many different USB devices to the USB 2.0 port. The microSDXC card slot allows additional storage space to be added to the device. The iPad does not offer these, but do offer some limited USB devices to be connected via a few optional dongles.

While I was able to plug my 1TB external USB hard drive to the Surface RT and access everything that was stored on it, I could not install many of the traditional Windows apps. Of course the RT is not designed to do so, but because Microsoft does not make it clear what it can do; people can become confused or frustrated as they learn by trial and error what it can and can not do. I believe people will think that they can do certain things because they see the traditional looking Windows Desktop while using the Surface RT. Of course the more expensive and heavier Surface Pro is supposed to let more or all traditional "Windows" apps work. The Surface RT has access to the Microsoft Store where apps made for Windows 8 can be downloaded. In some instances the windows 8 OS seems to prefer apps in the Microsoft Store over those found via the web or via your USB storage space. Time will tell how this will work on the Surface Pro.

But if the Windows Surface RT does not offer a full Windows PC experience than it must offer a full tablet experience, right? What is a full tablet experience? There are tons of Android tablets on the market that do not offer a full tablet experience. Many tablets are missing key essential apps, many don't have a well stocked app store (or no store at all), many offer a sub-par touch screen experience and most so not have access to an ecosystem for music, movies and more.

The Windows Surface RT don't suffer from all of these problems. If it had any problem, it would be a lack of essential apps. The Windows 8 store offer many recognizable apps like Evernote, Angry Birds, Netflix and Cut the Rope, but missing key apps like Pandora, Facebook, Dropbox, Logmein and more.

Speaking of Logmein.com, they have an iPad app called Ignition that has a feature I love.  When remote controlling my Windows computer, there is an setting that allows me to touch anywhere on the screen and move the mouse cursor to any point on the screen.  I like this method much better than being required to touch the screen exactly where I need to with my finger tip.  Sometimes the item that needs to be selected or clicked is too small and having my finger blocking the image I need to click is not the best way to implement this.  The Microsoft Surface RT using the "put your finger directly on the item method".  I would rather they give me the option to touch everywhere on the screen to move the mouse.  Whenever I entered into the Windows mode on the Surface RT, I felt a bit lost at times.  There is no start button.  Finding things that I commonly use became a chore that I sometimes gave up on before I located the setting or app.

The Surface RT is half a tablet and half a laptop replacement.  It doesn't appear to be a "full" anything.  It couldn't do many things I have come to love doing on an iPad; nor could it do many of the things I do on a computer or laptop.  If I can't do what I need to do on the device, I would at least like to be able to work remotely on another computer where I can do everything I want to do.  The problems with doing this are the Surface RT doesn't have a cellular antenna so I can't get connected without having access to WiFi and I couldn't get any remote software or VPN software to work in the Windows mode.

If Microsoft wants to sell the Surface as a laptop replacement, it has to get VPN and Remote Access applications working. Even with the iPad, that doesn't claim to be a laptop replacement device (but rather simply as a post-PC device), has remote tools that allow me to work on my remote computers while out and about. Sure Microsoft will eventually get the developers to create the essential apps, including remote tools, for the Surface tablet.

I have no doubt that developers will produce the essential app and because of this, the Microsoft Surface has a lot of promise. I think that Microsoft is not making any claims as to what the tablet can do, because they don't really know its full potential yet. It is just too early. It depends on what is developed for it.

The bottom line is this; all the Microsoft Surface RT has to be is a good tablet, but it isn't. It is a OK tablet with a lot of promise. But an OK tablet still might be adequate for many users. Let's look at the average Windows PC user. The average user uses Microsoft Office or Open Office to manage documents. The Surface RT satisfies this need. The average user surfs the web for Facebook, Ebay, Amazon and more. Surface RT does this. The average user plays music or watch videos and movies. These users manage their photos. They play games. They read news and gossip sources. The Microsoft Surface RT makes all of this possible. Maybe it doesn't have as many apps as the iPad or the big named Android devices. It does have more than the low end Android devices, but those are under $150.  The Surface RT can do what most users want to do on the go, but there are better options out there.

The Surface gets it right with the thin keyboard cover that is both light and functional. It proves that you can innovate beyond what is the norm (Bluetooth).  It also hits big with its build quality.  The kickstand is a necessary addition to a tablet or any size; especially tablet with a screen beyond 7.9 inches. Heck even a Smartphone is a great candidate for a kickstand. Where the Surface comes up short in both the tablet and laptop replacement departments. The Surface RT should have been designed as a pure tablet device with limited PC functions.  The apps used on the Surface RT should be built entirely with Windows 8 tile type interface.  Adding the "traditional Windows interface and desktop" for certain are activities and apps is a bad decision by Microsoft.  It is a pure indication that they tried to cheat on the implementation and development.  It was just plain easy (and lazy) to add the "old interface" in the Surface RT.  Those things are fine in the Surface Pro model, but not the Surface RT model.

The Surface RT boots up pretty fast and works pretty decent, but I would pass on it now. .It is just not ready for prime time. You will be better off letting the Microsoft develop the Surface RT further.  Wait to buy the 3rd or 4th generation Surface RT.  I look forward to seeing what this device evolves into. Remember that today's Apple's 4th Generation iPad has evolved quite well from the 1st Generation iPad.

The Windows Surface RT is no iPad, but then it doesn't have to be. There is enough tablet and Ultra book demand out here for them to do well regardless of what Apple, Samsung or even Google does in this crowded space. Some people are just going to prefer Windows and this device will eventually get to a place where it satisfies the typical tablet user.

It is about time Microsoft got active in this post PC world; eventually Microsoft will have to actually say what the Surface RT does. Or maybe they will just see what we figure out for ourselves and let us share what we find with the world. I hope Microsoft is not leaving the message  in our hands, because it will not be a very complete and pretty picture for them or the Surface RT.

By Carl W. Brooks, Editor

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